Prong: 'Ruining Lives' and 'Cleansing' souls

Tommy Victor talks new album, 'Cleansing' anniversary and more
By Peter Lindblad

Tommy Victor of Prong
Photo by Tim Tronckoe
Tommy Victor is beating his chest with pride over Prong's upcoming release, Ruining Lives. proclaiming its greatness to anyone who will listen.

Due out May 13 in the North America via Steamhammer/SPV, it's the aggressive, slammed-up-against-the-wall successor to 2012's bruising Carved Into Stone, a bone-on-bone record of white-hot intensity and rugged, jawbreaking brilliance that critics went gaga for two years ago. Victor believes Prong upped the ante on Ruining Lives.

"This is the fastest written and recorded Prong album ever, and it has more great songs than any previous Prong record," said Victor, the guitarist, singer and mastermind behind one of alternative-metal's most ambitious and punishing acts. "I am particularly proud of the vocal performance, and I think we captured some outstanding sounds on this album."

Especially adept at combining industrial and post-punk elements with a raging street-metal ferocity and thrash-metal explosiveness, the fiercely independent Prong has carved out its own niche since forming in the late 1980s, toying with electronics and different genres without ever sacrificing power or raw energy for the sake of trying something different.

Tommy Victor, master of the riff
It all started at the famed punk club CBGBs, where Victor worked as a sound man. Together with the venue's doorman, Mike Kirkland, and former Swans drummer Ted Parsons, Prong put out two indie records, the Primitive Origins EP in 1987 and Force Fed in 1988, before signing to Epic Records in 1989 – the result of a furious showcase performance at the old Ritz in their New York City home with local hardcore heavy-hitters the Cro-Mags and German trash heroes Destruction.

A year later, Prong let the classic Beg to Differ loose on the world, a powder keg of a record that helped bring about a sea change in heavy metal, as would contemporaries Helmet and Pantera. Prove You Wrong arrived in 1991, followed by 1994's landmark record, Cleansing, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

Washing ashore in the wake of the Whose Fist is This Anyway? EP of remixes from the Prove Your Wrong album and recorded with former Killing Joke bassist Paul Raven and keyboardist John Bechdel, Cleansing had a muscular groove and a shocking amount of manic electronic edginess. And it had "Snap Your Fingers Snap Your Neck," often cited as having one of the greatest riffs in metal history.

Not wanting to repeat themselves, 1996's Rude Awakening was a departure, exploring the post-punk terrain charted by Killing Joke and welding industrial textures to its already potent sonic machinery. That run of albums was not only prolific, but it also represented an astonishing burst of creativity for Victor and Prong.

Prong: Tommy Victor, Tony Campos
and Alexei Rodriguez (in no particular order)
Photo by Tim Tronckoe
Now comes Ruining Lives, produced by Victor with help from Steve Evetts and featuring the rhythm section of Tony Campos and Alexei Rodriguez. As much a throwback to Prong's Beg to Differ era as it is a step forward in a bold new direction for a band that is constantly pushing the envelope, Ruining Lives takes everything Prong has done in the past and forms fresh, modern sonic art of it all. Victor talks about Prong's past and the new album in this exclusive interview.

Why do you think this record came together so fast?
Tommy Victor: It had to. I was presented with a strict deadline, and I agreed to it. It was important for me to honor that.

Prong- Ruining Lives 2014
Where Carved in Stone was really lean and maybe somewhat more minimalist in its approach, and just a relentless attack from the word go, Ruining Lives seems like a more diverse record, one you can immerse yourself, while still being heavy and crushing, especially on the title track and "Absence of Light." Do you see it that way as well?
TV: Not particularly. I think Ruining Lives is relentless as well, if not more so. There are songs that cross into a post-punk and diverse vibe on both records. Like "Put Myself To Sleep," "Path of Least Resistance," "Reinvestigate," "Subtract" maybe on Carved. Ruining has "Windows Shut," "Self Will Run Riot," and "Absence Of Light," and all have a lot going on in them.

"Come to Realize" is a different animal for Prong. Talk about how that song was created, how it evolved and about the unusual time signature you used. Did that make it a difficult song to record?
TV: It was fairly easy to lay down. Once you memorize the riff, it's a no-brainer. Prong started doing some odd timing back in the Beg To Differ years. I wasn't afraid to build a song out of that riff, so that wasn't an issue neither.

"Turnover" and "The Book of Change" are full of really powerful riffs and hard-hitting drumming. To you, what goes into making a great riff, and who do you think comes up with the best of them?
TV: Thanks. In the case of those songs, there wasn't a lot of thought put in. I usually jam to a certain BPM, to a metronome. I mix it up, and something seems to come out of it. There are so many great riff masters out there. I'm a little weird that way, though. I think Geordie Walker from Killing Joke writes some of the catchiest riffs of all time, and consistently, for instance. Obviously Dime [Pantera's Dimebag Darrell] had an amazing knack for riffs. [Slayer's] Kerry [King] and Jeff  [Hanneman], R.I.P. You have to admit, Jack White  is a genius at that too.

Tommy Victor performing
live with Prong
Lyrically, has your world view changed at all since the early days? Are you reacting to the world and its problems differently than you used to, or do the same things anger and provoke you to write the way you do?
TV: I had a lot of undisciplined anger in the old days – self pitying, too. There were some good messages, though, back then. "Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck" has a good "live for the moment attitude," which is still cool to me. "Broken Peace" has a positive message, too, out of general frustration, and that's topically something I continue to focus on. There's just more of it now – believe it or not nowadays. The world is what it is, we all have to adapt to reality.

In what ways does this album hearken back to Prong classics like Beg to Differ and Cleansing, and in what ways has Prong evolved since then?
TV: Well, I've always had to sit in a room, maybe even a bathroom or a closet, and come up with lyrics and song ideas, like any writer. That doesn't change. Modern technology and budgets dictate the actual recording process, and that has changed things drastically. There are  lot of things you don't have to do now. And because of that you have to be more careful. I dislike auto-tuned vocals, for instance. All my vocals are performed and doubled. Fortunately, I have experience with that and can do it in a fair amount of time. The vocals have matured considerably I believe. I've learned by doing and they've progressed – same with guitar. I can blast through guitar tracks a lot faster than in the old days. That's all technical stuff. I've been blessed with getting Steve Evetts to work with. He's a godsend. also finding [producer/engineer/mixer] Chris Collier has been amazing. He's one of the most talented guys I've ever been involved with. 

You produced Ruining Lives, and you've said that you're especially proud of the vocals on the record. Did you record them differently this time around to enhance them, or was it just a matter of the performance being stronger?
TV: Well, I answered most of that in the last question. There is a progression of the same attitude on Carved Into Stone. Evetts knows how to coach singers. He produced the vocals on Ruining Lives. It's great to have him in the control room while I'm cutting vocals. Years ago, I was on my own. It was always, "Tommy go in the booth and scream, " and I've realized I don't need to do that, through Steve's guidance.

You worked as the sound man at CBGBs. How did that prepare you for what you experienced with Prong?
TV: It was a boot camp for me. I was forced to be part of the scene. I saw all the bands. And I could see what not to do. I had a firsthand glance of what was going on, so Prong could make decisions based on that knowledge.

What do you remember most about that show at The Ritz with the Cro-Mags and Destruction that helped you get signed by Epic? 
TV: I remember the amazing response we got. We had been fighting for a Rock Hotel show for a couple of years. Finally, [original Prong bassist] Mike Kirkland got [Rock Hotel promoter] Chris Williamson to agree on putting us on that show. It was an epic show that got us signed to Epic.

Talk about the progression or the evolution of Prong from Beg to Differ on through Rude Awakening. Those albums are so innovative and have elements of post-punk, industrial and metal, among others. Where did that desire to combine these different genres come from?
TV: There was beginning to be hoards of thrash-metal bands, noise/ industrial bands, hardcore and crossover bands. So what would be different? How would Prong stand out? I couldn't rely on my playing totally nor my singing. I was okay and got by. I had to rely on smart riffs and stylistic maneuvering. We also had to look to the future a lot in order to maybe break new ground. And back then there was a high ceiling for that. A focus on "songs" inevitably became a priority as well, with less emphasis on strict riffing.

Prong - Cleansing 1994
Cleansing turns 20 years old this year. What are your impressions of it all these years later, and why do you think it remains such an influential record?
TV: It's a classic, and I have no qualms about proclaiming that. It's a signature rock record, not just metal. It opened a lot of doors for a lot of new artists. It's a killer sounding record. [Producer] Terry Date was on top of his game. We made a lot of great studio decisions together. It was a fantastic experience. And it was at a time when Epic records were scratching their heads wondering what the hell we were doing.

You had the EP Whose Fist Is This Anyway?, which came out prior to Cleansing. How did that work influence Cleansing
TV: Well it got Paul Raven interested in taking up the bass role in Prong. We had him do a remix. Then we became friends and eventually led to him playing in the band. To those who don't know, that was the first remix record ever done by a metal band. Ted Parsons and I fought hard to get that sold to Epic records management.

Is "Snap Your Fingers Snap Your Neck" a song you feel represents what Prong is all about, or is there another that you feel is under-appreciated and deserves more acclaim?
TV: It's a magical track. We actually started playing that song while Troy Gregory was still in the band. People loved it from the beginning. Some songs are just like that. I'm noticing "Turnover" having that kind of response now.

Next up for Prong? Lots
of touring
Photo by Tim Tronckoe
Ruining Lives seems to revive so much of what makes Prong so interesting and still relevant these days. Does it seem to bridge the old and the new for Prong?
TV: I wouldn't disagree with that. It's got the riffs, it has the hooks, it has the grooves, it's got some of the New York hardcore vibe, it's got the post-punk undertones. It's a solid Prong record.

What's next for Prong?
TV: Touring. There's a lot coming up. Then writing for a new record. Maybe I'll do the next one in two months time, not three.

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